Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has defended not going further with abortion law reform, saying the bill put up before Parliament needs to be able to pass.

The Government on Monday unveiled its long-awaited bill to decriminalise abortion, treat it as a health issue and reduce the legal hoops women have to go through to get access.

It's the first major reform in the area in more than four decades and will have its first reading in Parliament on Thursday.

Under current laws, women need to get clearance from two doctors on physical or mental health grounds – a process that's been described as stigmatising and too cumbersome.

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The proposed changes would mean before 20 weeks' into their pregnancy women would be able to make the decision.

Later than that, the person performing the procedure would have to "reasonably believe the abortion is appropriate with regard to the pregnant woman's physical and mental health, and wellbeing".

While advocates for change have welcomed the legislation as a major step forward, they've criticised the 20-week limit.

"Why the 20-week limit? There are scans that happen around 20 weeks and this gives people little time to consider those results," Abortion Law Reform Association of NZ president Terry Bellamak said.

Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand, Justice Minister Andrew Little says. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Abortion is the only medical procedure that is still a crime in New Zealand, Justice Minister Andrew Little says. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"It's not as good as it could have been, but it's so much better than the status quo, we have to give the Government props for that."

Family Planning also said it was disappointed there was still a legal test.

"The proposed approach isn't what the broader health community, including Family Planning, recommended and is really a missed opportunity to put all women front and centre of the process," chief executive Jackie Edmond said.

The Law Commission submitted three reform options for the Government to consider in October, but the legislation has been repeatedly held up, including by negotiations with NZ First.

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The options included having no statutory test to make sure the abortion was appropriate at any point; taking abortion out of the Crimes Act but having a statutory test; or only having a test for later-term abortions, after 22 weeks.

Advocates had been hoping for no test, but it's been reported NZ First haggled for the 20-week rule.

Ardern on Monday defended keeping the test in the law, saying it needed to be something that could pass through Parliament in a conscience vote.

"I think this option has the greatest chance of succeeding in Parliament, and I think that's really important because one of the ultimate goals has been to modernise this legalisation," she said.

"Ultimately, it is about putting something to Parliament that has the strongest likelihood
of succeeding.

"This issue should not be in the Crimes Act."

The bill would also allow for the creation of 150-metre safe zones around specific clinics where people had been harassed by protesters.

It would prevent people from handing out pamphlets or approaching women going inside.

"We know that there are some places in New Zealand where women going to get an abortion are being harassed and intimated, are being confronted by anti-abortion protesters with their literature. It is simply inappropriate to do that," Justice Minister Andrew Little said announcing the policy on Monday.

The changes would also allow women to refer themselves to clinics without a doctor.

Parliament will hold a conscience vote on the bill on Thursday, meaning members vote individually, rather than along party lines.

Little on Monday said he was confident the bill would pass its first reading, although the numbers are not clear. It could be introduced into law before next year's election.

The Green Party has thrown its backing behind the first reading, but the remaining parties will likely be split.

If the legislation passes on Thursday, it will then go to a special Select Committee for feedback.

"It will be close," Ardern said.

"What I'd hope is that members of Parliament will give members of the public a chance to have a say on the issue by seeing this bill passed at first reading."

Advocates say they'll push for it to go further when they make submissions.

Meanwhile, conservative lobby group Family First has vowed to run a strong campaign against the legislation.

"Under the current law, an unborn child is at least afforded some recognition and minimal legal protection. In contrast, these proposals will give the unborn child the same status as an appendix, tonsils or gall bladder – simply tissue removed as part of a 'health procedure'," spokeswoman Gina Sunderland said.

How many people get abortions now?

There were about 13,000 abortions performed in New Zealand last year, according to Statistics New Zealand. Only 57 of those took place after 20 weeks' pregnancy. On a per-capita basis the rate has been falling the past decade.

Why do we need reform if people are already getting abortions?
Advocates for change say New Zealand's 42-year-old abortion law, and particularly having abortion in the Crimes Act, is outdated and puts unnecessary burden on women. They say they current system makes women feel stigmatised, takes too long and limits access in rural areas.

So how is the new law different?

It will mean women won't need any doctor's permission to seek an abortion before 20 weeks' pregnancy. After 20 weeks they'll need one health practioner's approval. Currently, women need clearance from two doctors on grounds of mental or physical risk from day one. About 98 per cent of current abortions are performed under the mental health clause. After 20 weeks an abortion currently needs to save the life of the woman.

Crimes Act?

Medical practioners who breach the law will now be dealt with by medical authorities, rather than through the Crimes Act. However, under the proposed law it will still be a crime for an unqualified person to try to perform an abortion and causing the death of an unborn child by harming a pregnant woman will remain an offence.

Will doctors have to participate?

No. Doctors will still be able to object on conscience grounds, but they'll have to point patients towards services elsewhere.

Will access in rural areas improve?

Advocates say letting women go to an abortion provider without a doctor's permission first (self-referring) will mean more people will be able to get access to early, non-surgical abortions. Those can be performed at smaller clinics that don't have full surgical equipment, making smaller clinics in more remote areas more viable.

Safety zones?

The bill would let authorities set up 150-metre safe areas around specific abortion clinics if those going there have been harassed. They would prevent protesters from handing out literature or approaching people going inside. Little says there's enough evidence to suggest the power might be needed down the line.

How widely is change supported?

A Newshub-Reid Research poll carried in March found about 70 per cent of people support taking abortion out of the Crimes Act.

Is there opposition?

Yes. Groups such as Family First have vowed to fiercely fight the bill. They say the changes are radical and treat abortions like cutting out an "appendix, tonsils or gall bladder".

What happens now?

Parliament will hold the first reading and vote on the bill on Thursday. MPs will vote individually, not by party lines. It's expected to pass, but the numbers aren't clear yet. If it passes, a Select Committee will hear submissions for the public about making possible changes. It could be law before next year's election.